The editor of Theresa May’s local newspaper has warned proposed new legislation on libel costs could be the “final nail in the coffin” for the regional press.
Martin is among several editorial chiefs to have spoken out about the planned law change, which could see publishers forced to pay both sides’ costs in libel or privacy actions even if they successfully defend a case in court.
Last week the Society of Editors warned the financial implications of this could result in the closure of some titles.
Said Martin: “The effects of the costs sanctions triggered by the recognition of Impress and the bringing into force of Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 by the Government would be particularly chilling for small independent publishers like ourselves.
“It’s plain it could represent the final nail in the coffin for local papers championing local democracy by holding those in authority to account.
“I’m appalled the regional press, exonerated by Leveson, faces being the victim of flawed and heavy-handed legislation based on misguided ideas from politicians who should be defending grassroots democracy rather than the architects of its destruction.”
Others to have spoken against the proposals include Neil Benson, editorial director for Trinity Mirror Regionals.
Said Neil: “The impact of these costs provisions would be felt by each and every one of our regional and local newspapers and the business as a whole. It would fundamentally change the way our editors approach publication because they would have to consider the possibility of being financially penalised even if a judge had ruled that every word of their story was true.
“Enacting these cost provisions would represent an attack on local journalism and fundamentally undermine democracy at a local level. The Government must not do this. Instead, Ministers should be looking at ways to support a vibrant local news sector which challenges authority and holds the powerful to account.”
Gary Shipton, Johnston Press Sussex editor-in-chief and deputy chairman of the company’s editorial board, noted that Lord Justice Leveson had praised the local press in his report and highlighted the “important role local newspapers play in society”.
He added: “As an industry, local press now faces the most pernicious threat to our ability to report without fear or favour. If they were brought into force, these costs provisions could severely compromise our ability to defend actions even when we were clearly acting in the public interest.”
Terry Hunt, East Anglian Daily Times editor, said: “We pride ourselves on our ability to speak the truth on behalf of our readers. To be penalised for reporting the truth by being forced to pay the costs of an unsuccessful claimant seems completely perverse and a direct attack on local democracy.”
And Kent Messenger editor Denise Eaton added: “The idea that the press could be penalised for being accurate is both astounding and absurd. I’m surprised it is even being considered it’s so flawed and fraught with implications which could cause irreparable damage to a free press.”